Harry Whittaker
Revelation - A Biblical Approach

Chapter 39 - The Fifth Vision: Saints Enthroned (20:4-6)

Jesus had promised the twelve that they should “sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel’’ (Matthew 19: 28). The time is now come for the fulfilment of that promise. There is no mention of judgement at this point. This is taken for granted, as in Paul’s description of resurrection in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17 and 1 Corinthians 15:52-55; and understandably so, since in this vision the heavenly spotlight is on those who have been outstanding martyrs in the cause of Christ. There is special mention of “those who were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God”. This detail is remarkable, for in the early persecutions when the disciples were put to death it was either “the Christians to the lions!” or crucifixion. Death by beheading was the special “privilege” by which a Roman citizen died.

It is not unreasonable, then, to see in this expression an allusion to the martyrdom of Paul. What other Roman citizens died in this way because of their faith? It is probable that Luke was put to death along with Paul, but was he a Roman citizen? Romans 16 and Philippians 1:13, 4:22 seem to imply the existence of aristocrats in the ranks of the ecclesia in Rome. The allusion may be to such. It is to be observed also that the coupling of “them that were beheaded” with others “which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands” (13:15, 16) probably implies a First-Century fulfilment of the Apocalypse’s prophecies about persecution as well as further application to later times.

“And judgement was given unto them.” There is unmistakable allusion here to Daniel 7:22: “and judgement was given to the saints of the most High; and the time came that the saints possessed the kingdom”. Now also is the time of the true fulfilment of Psalm 122:5-8: “For there (in Jerusalem) are set thrones of judgement, the thrones of the house of David ... Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces. For my brethren and companions’ sakes, I will now say, Peace be within thee.”


That is one aspect of the picture. Another is hinted at briefly in the words, which follow in Revelation 20: “The rest of the dead lived not until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection.”

The interpretations given to these words are many and varied. For instance:

1. “I saw thrones, and they sat on them” (v. 4) describes the blessedness of those accepted after the resurrection and judgement at the Lord’s return, whereas this verse 5 relates to another resurrection and judgement at the end of the Millenium.

2. The word “again” has no place in this passage[79] and “the rest of the dead” are those rejected by the Lord at his coming. According to this, these live on into the Millenium in mortality; they die and pass into oblivion sometime during the reign of Christ.

3. On extremely slender grounds it has been argued also that, according to this passage, only those worthy of immortality will rise at the Lord’s coming, whilst the rest who are judged and condemned in absentia, so to speak, will remain in the grave until their resurrection to condemnation at the end of the Millenium.

4. Yet again, others would make this passage refer to enlightened rejectors of the gospel for whom a later resurrection is deemed more fitting, separate from the resurrection of baptized believers.

5. The interpretation which seems to harmonize best with the details written here in Revelation 20 and elsewhere is on these lines: Those who are seen enthroned (verse 4) represent a small select group of the outstanding servants of Christ who are raised and glorified before the main body of believers. The main resurrection and judgement comes in later (20:12-15), after the final establishment of the authority of Christ, possibly even after the Gog-Magog rebellion of Revelation 20:7-10.


Such a picture may seem somewhat undemocratic, by Twentieth-Century standards, but it is entirely in harmony with the Lord’s methods in the days of his flesh. He chose twelve to be with him throughout his ministry, to be specially instructed and trained for big responsibility later. And of them he selected only a handful for certain outstanding privileges such as being witnesses of the raising of Jairus’ daughter, hearing the Olivet prophecy, and - specially - being present at the Transfiguration which anticipated the Kingdom itself. And in more than one place his parables suggest that “one standard rate for the job” will hardly be the principle which he will apply in the great day when the faithful are rewarded.

“The rest of the dead (i.e. those not included in this group of outstanding disciples) lived not until the thousand years should be finished.” Care must be taken here that these words be not misread. Old familiar misconceptions regarding these phrases are not readily set aside. It was shewn in Chapter 38 that “the thousand years finished” is an apocalyptic phrase for “the complete establishment of the kingdom”. Perhaps the distinction is between the initial assertion of the Lord’s authority as King of the Jews and the later demonstration to the whole world that he is King of kings and Lord of lords. In that case the main resurrection and judgement may come in after Messiah’s authority has been declared not only in Jerusalem but also to the ends of the earth. Certainly according to the familiar picture of judgement in Matthew 25:31, Jesus is already king sitting “on the throne of his glory” when all nations are gathered before him.


This approach makes sense of the separation which Revelation 20 seems to require between the resurrection of those who sit on the thrones of glory (in verse 4), and “the dead small and great, who stand before God” at the time when “the books are opened.”[80] Perhaps this distinction is also implied in the words: “Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no authority”. In six other places Revelation uses the word “Blessed” to describe the ultimate happiness of the worthy disciple, but only here is the phrase used: “Blessed and holy”. Those who are raised in this group are assured of immortality even before their Lord pronounces their acceptance. This was true of the Twelve even before Christ died, for he assured them: “Ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit on the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:20) - the words are marvelously similar to Revelation 20:4. Paul also was assured by the Lord himself before his final appearing before Caesar that there was already laid up for him a crown of righteousness which his Lord would give to him (2 Timothy 4:8, 17).

Assuming the correctness of the conclusions argued for here (and it should always be borne in mind that the amount of Bible evidence regarding most of the details concen1ing resurrection and judgement hardly warrants dogmatism) it is well to realize that there is nothing here to support the view, sometimes vigorously contended for, that the dead, or some of them, will arise from their graves in a condition of immortality (1 Peter 4:6). It may be taken as fairly certain that Paul will be one of those to be raised first, yet he himself was careful to say that his crown of righteousness would be received from “the Lord, the righteous judge”. And when he wrote about the resurrection, by his choice of pronouns he was careful to include himself in the judgement: “We must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ...” (Romans 14:10; 2 Corinthians 5:10). The word “made manifest”, here translated “appear”, implies fairly clearly the idea of public assessment rather than reward.

The ensuing words in Revelation are also quoted sometimes to support the idea of immortal resurrection: “Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power”. Such a use of the passage is mistaken, for the words “have part” are not equivalent to “be involved in”, but more specifically refer to inheritance. This is one of many places where the New Testament uses “resurrection” not with reference to the actual process of emerging from the tomb but concerning the ultimate end of that process - approval by Christ and the receiving of immortality; e.g. Philippians 3:11; 1 Corinthians 15:21, 42; Acts 23:6; 4:2; Luke 20:33-36.

[79] Correct! It is as near certain as can be that the word “again” should not appear in this passage. See any modern version.
[80] The demonstration that the great white throne judgement comes at the beginning, and not the end, of the kingdom age is reserved until ch. 40.
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